Gerald first came to the farm when he was eight weeks old in 2017. A Cavachon, his owners wanted him to get some puppy training while they were on vacation. He was sweet, sensitive, and snuggly, and our staff immediately fell in love with the wiggly little guy. I never would have guessed that, in time, I’d be meeting a very different dog— one unable to function in everyday life due to his owners’ decisions.
Earlier this year, Gerald was back at the farm, in my office for a private lesson. I asked his owner to place him on the ground, and Gerald immediately became debilitatingly nervous and clung to his owner’s legs, shaking profusely. Gerald’s owners informed me that Gerald is never placed on the ground outside of the house. They were afraid he’d be eaten by a hawk. I started to suspect that I had a case of helicopter dog parents on my hands.
It’s not a new concept. Helicopter parenting, in regards to human children hit the scenes in the 1990s. These sorts of parents watch constantly nearby, ready to solve any issue that arises, leaving children unable to function independently.
Helicopter dog parents are a more recent development. It’s part of a growing trend that has seen a transition in verbiage from “dog owner” to “dog mom”— in fact, according to a survey published by Rover.com earlier this year, three out of four dog owners preferred the title of “mom” in regards to their dog. In addition, 25% self-identified as helicopter pet parents. The numbers depended on generation, however. While Boomers often considered their dog their best friend, 45% of Gen Z pet owners called themselves helicopter pet owners. Millennial and Gen X pet owners preferred the term “Velcro pet parents”. The distinction was in the attachment -- helicopter versions hovered and worried, while the Velcro humans simply considered themselves attached to their dog.
I’m not one to quibble about title. I’ll happily listen whether you call yourself a “mom” or “parent” or “owner.”
But where I am paying attention is how the dog responds. I’ve been a dog trainer for over 20 years, and as I see more cases like Gerald, I can define the issue pretty clearly: the dogs are stressed because of their owners.
Gerald is the sort of dog that rides in a pet stroller when he goes outside, due to the fear of him being snatched away by a predator. He only uses pee pads inside of the home to do his business. When I tried to warm him up with a few cookies, he refused. I then pulled out the big guns— a mozzarella cheese stick. Again, Gerald refused.
His owner then told me that Gerald will only eat his food when it is topped with shredded cheese, mashed potatoes, or bits of steak.
Dogs who are micromanaged like this at home often suffer from debilitating anxiety when their owners aren’t available to solve their problems immediately.
And Gerald wasn’t even in my office that day because of his anxiety.
His owners love him so much that they wanted to share him with others. Despite the anxiety he suffered, he was still that sweet and snuggly little guy he’d been as a puppy, and his owners wanted him to become a therapy dog.
Gerald had a lot of potential, with the friendly personality needed to enjoy that type of work. But even though he’d learned a bit while he was young at the farm, his training had not been continued and he wasn’t able to pass the test.
Dogs with this sort of anxiety are wonderful when inside their own homes, but on walks, in the park, or at a training class, there are things that distract them. This is why we train dogs. Every time we train a new cue or offer our dog a teachable moment, we make them better at learning in general. But as learning occurs (in all species), we are constantly adapting to working through manageable stress. If too much stress is placed on the animal in the learning phase, the animal is not capable of learning. However, if there is never an opportunity for the dog to learn to deal with manageable stress, when life presents a challenge, dogs of helicopter parents are ill-equipped to handle it.
The homework that I assigned to Gerald’s owners was to begin walking Gerald for short bits outside on a leash, and to pull the high value food from his bowl and use it for training. I scheduled a lesson for them for the following week.
Two days later, Gerald’s owners called and cancelled our lesson. They stated that he was so stressed out by pulling the steak off of his bowl that he refused to eat his dog food. And that the training was too hard for him.
Gerald never became a therapy dog.
We all want the best for our dog.
Gerald’s owners sure did.
But allowing them to live in a bubble where they will never have to deal with or face any type of stress does not help them. In the long run, it causes more stress.
Learning something new (whether someone is teaching you or whether you are having a life experience) is always stressful. But stress is not always a bad thing. Some of life’s best moments would not occur if it weren’t for stress! Think about riding a roller coaster, winning a competition, or having a first kiss. That rush comes from adrenaline, which is designed to help your body regulate stress. Dogs get adrenaline as well and can benefit from it.
Are you worried that this is you? Maybe you’re a helicopter dog parent. After all, you simply want a happy, confident dog that can go anywhere with you to have fun.
But happy, confident dogs generally have happy, confident owners. And it’s hard to be happy or confident when you are micromanaging your dog for fear that something bad may happen.
So what do you do if you fear that you are a helicopter dog parent? Here are some tips to help your dog live his best life:
- Consider a different perspective. Your dog has a way of looking at the world you could benefit from considering. Stop trying to fit them into your world and let them live in theirs. It will cause them less anxiety.
- Remember to breathe. Dogs have survived novice human owners for decades. Accidents happen, dogs cough, get cuts, and eat things they aren’t supposed to. Diarrhea happens often (get off of the internet. . . it’s not parvo!). Usually nobody dies. Let your dog be a dog and do the (sometimes cringe-worthy) things that dogs enjoy.
- Build your village. Put together a team of animal professionals that are right for you, your dog, and your situation. Not every vet, trainer, or groomer will have the same opinion about what is right for your dog. Do your research, ask for recommendations and references, and study their credentials to make sure you are all on the same page. And once you have your team assembled, trust them! If they tell you a behavior occurred or a problem happened, ask for details and have them help you put together a plan to fix it.
- Ask questions. Remember that animal professionals by and large are in their line of business because they love animals. So if something in your plan is not working, don’t jump to conclusions or assume that they are wrong. Remember, every dog is different—instead work together to come to a different solution.
- Keep your village informed. Aside from you, they know your dog best and have the right tools to help. Just like our dogs, people also need positive reinforcement and thrive on successes. Let them know what is working so they can help you build off of it. Let them know what isn’t early on, so they can guide you on how to shift. Maintaining a good relationship with your dog’s people will keep them working hard for you (read: answering their cell phone at 3 am for you on occasion)! Of course, it’s ok to seek other options if you unhappy. But be careful that you don’t jump ship at the first disagreement.
- Use the internet for what it is worth. Ever heard that saying about what opinions are like? The Internet is full of people with no credentials or real expertise in a subject voicing their opinions or telling someone that they’ve never met how to solve problems. While it can be entertaining to read some of the solutions that are proposed, other solutions can be downright scary and completely ill informed. Case in point, if you google how to treat mange in a dog, one of the proposed solutions is to bathe your dog in motor oil--I don’t believe I need to go any further here.
Always remember— happy, confident dogs are raised by happy, confident owners. Just like kids, all dogs are different. And just like kid parents, as a pet parent we don’t always have the all the answers, there isn’t always a “right” way to do it, and we need to rely on our gut just as much as the advice of the professional around us. We strive raise our pups to return the love, respect, and companionship we give to them. We certainly do not intentionally make them stressed and anxious—so relax, let them be dogs and enjoy life from nose to tail!